In high school, I took many advanced classes and was the “smart friend” who my friends turned to for help, making me feel too good or too smart for many of the smaller universities I was pursuing. Part of the problem was that, despite all the things I knew, there was one big thing I didn’t—what I wanted to do with my life.

I didn’t know where I wanted to go, and I didn’t have a “dream school” that many of my peers had. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what I would be happy doing for the next 50ish years. I liked my government class, so I decided to pursue political science. I ended up applying to three schools, none of them being the smaller schools I had been drawn to previously. I knew throughout the whole process that none of the schools that I applied to made me excited about my future, but they would impress my family, friends, and future employers.

When acceptances rolled in around February, I began to feel the stress that comes with making important decisions. I got into all three schools. What would normally be a cause for celebration only applied more pressure to me. I didn’t know what I wanted, so I decided to look at what other people wanted for me. My family wanted the best for me so they, naturally, wanted me to go to the most renowned school that I got into. I was facing this pressure while I was also coming up on a deadline for accepting an offer.

I wanted to make my family proud, but I also let my ego get in the way. I decided on the school that my family wanted for me and the one that I thought would make me look the best. However, when I got there, none of those reasons mattered anymore. I was no longer surrounded my family, and my peers had moved on. I was alone with the decision that I had made, and only then did I realize it was the wrong one. I had let others’ opinions and visions for me overrule the process I needed to go through on my own.

I don’t blame my family for what went wrong at university. It was a result of how I dealt with the pressure. At the end of the day, I was the one who accepted the offer and went to a school that I wasn’t excited about. However, I might not have picked that school if my family hadn’t been so vocal in my decision.

Now I am attending Whatcom Community College this year, and I’ll finish in the spring with my associate’s degree. In the fall, I plan on transferring to Western Washington University (one of the schools I originally liked but didn’t apply to) and double majoring in history and political science. My life may not be how I pictured it, but I’m proud of the decisions I’ve finally made and where they’re leading me.

I always knew I wanted a college education, but it took me quite a while to figure out what I wanted to do for a career. Like many students, my college planning started in high school. I took plenty of career aptitude tests and personality quizzes to fine-tune what I would be good at and what career options matched up with my test results.

I stuck with what I was told and began working my way through an associate’s degree and then onto a bachelor’s degree. About halfway through my progression at Western Washington University, I realized that the career I was working toward wasn’t something that I actually wanted to do. So I switched to another major and continued with my education.

Not having a career goal in mind didn’t worry me because I was told repeatedly that having a bachelor’s degree will make me a very marketable job candidate in whatever direction I decided to go. After my 2012 graduation, where I received a degree in cultural anthropology, I quickly realized that wasn’t the case. My biggest takeaway from that moment was mistakenly trusting my high school self to know what was best for my adult self and rushing into a college education immediately after high school to complete that goal.

This brings me to why I am now a student in my early 30s attending Bellingham Technical College.

Throughout my initial college life, I worked a part-time retail job and when I graduated, that part-time job turned into a full-time job, and I continued with that line of work for several years. After many years of this, I reflected on the aspects of my unfulfilling job that I actually did enjoy: financial, administrative, employee relations, and business strategy—none of which my degree had prepared me for.

Going through my mail one day, I came across a small booklet from BTC and decided to thumb through it out of curiosity. A seed of an idea planted in my mind. As my job in retail became less and less satisfying, that seed in my mind began to grow until eventually I explored BTC’s website and then visited the campus to learn more.

I had strong, negative feelings about going back to school since my first go-around ended in such a flop. But I was getting desperate and did not want to spend the rest of my life working in retail. I pushed my reluctance aside and took the plunge into college life once more.

I was self-conscious returning to college as a 30-year-old but quickly realized that there seemed to be a lot more people at BTC my age than I thought. My mindset was to go to school, get my degree as fast as possible, not spend time making friends or doing anything extra, graduate, and finally get a job and start a career more fitting for my adult life. Halfway through my first quarter at BTC, my stubborn mindset was gone, and I could tell that BTC was going to completely change my life.

As my June 2019 graduation date grows nearer, I can happily and confidently say that I am a different and better person than I was when I started at BTC. I quit my retail job and got involved with student government and was elected the director of finance with the Associated Student Body of Community and Technical colleges. Next month, I’ll be getting an associate’s degree in accounting.

I can attest to the quality of my education so far because I was offered a part-time job at a local Bellingham business, putting my studies in accounting to practice as a bookkeeper/office administrator and will be full-time once I graduate. Life is definitely busy for me, but it is the kind of busy that leaves me happy and fulfilled.

Being a Coug has always been one of my proudest choices. I loved my life on the Palouse, but I had to transfer to Washington State University Everett due to the costs associated with living on and attending the Pullman campus. Transferring alleviated the housing costs after I moved in with my dad. He lives an hour away from Everett, but nonetheless, this saved the rent checks every month. I got a job which paid decently and I loved. However, I was still finding myself unsatisfied with the number in my bank account. The cost of gas was proving to be a bigger expense than I thought, driving at least two hours per day.

I picked up a second job during my junior year of college. I was now balancing a full-time student workload, two part-time jobs, and knew at some point I was going to need an internship. Nearly 1 million of the 1.5 million internships in the U.S. are unpaid, according to the Guardian. I was forced to leave a paying job to fulfill the internship credit required by my program.

When I got a job in Bellingham, I was thrilled that my adult career was finally taking off. After having spent three months without a job over the summer, I knew I’d have to move in with family temporarily while I accumulated some weight to my checking account. What I did not expect, however, was the cost of living in Bellingham. Despite a job market that pales in comparison to that of the same market 100 miles south, the housing costs are relatively the same. With an entry-level job and student loans, I feel like I’m going to be living with my family indefinitely. With what I can afford to pay per month on my student loans, I’ll be paying them off for the next 10 years.

December 2018 marked six months after graduation. I cringed as I set up all the direct transfers to cover my student loans. With the salaries entry-level professionals are given, I now have less than $800 per month in income after my loan payments.

To shed a little perspective, average tuition costs in the 1980s were about $9,438. Today, students face a price tag on average of $23,872 according to Business Insider. Adjusted for inflation, entry-level salaries have risen about 2.9 percent between 1988 and 2016, while the cost of public university has risen by 183 percent, according to calculations by MarketWatch.

While it’s true that higher education opens doors to career opportunities, it’s truer that it’s an extreme financial burden that extends beyond the four years spent on campus. The challenges students face now are much different than those faced by previous generations. So many peers of mine have stated that their dreams are not to own a mansion and several sports cars, but to rather afford rent, groceries, utilities, and other necessary monthly costs without having to worry or stress about paying them. The American Dream is no longer about wealth; it’s existence.

As a college student, my life is intertwined with social media to a point of inseparability. We students use it for work, as well as play, and nearly everything in between. Walking to class, and dodging the students with phones up to their faces, I can’t help but notice how the lives of people my age are subjected to the constant pressures of being “connected” at all times.

When broken down, a window is just glass and a wooden frame. But in its entirety, a window provides a brief glimpse into the private life of another. And like in the 1954 classic movie, “Rear Window,” there are limitations to that view. What you can’t see is sometimes left to speculation.

Social media is the modern, ever-present version of this window. Yes, it makes the world a smaller place, but simultaneously it holds the potential to separate us from the truly human elements of life, like heartache, emotional intimacy, and struggle.

Consider social media in the context of the photo-sharing app, Instagram. What people typically choose to portray on their accounts are the brightest, happiest moments of their lives. You share the photos showing your best angle or your most picturesque trip, not your day-to-day life. In addition to close friends and relatives, users can follow accounts of people they’ve never met—people who have gained a massive following on Instagram for being attractive and posting attractive photos of their life. These accounts are a regular occurrence, giving the appearance that seemingly dream-lives are the norm for many.

When you are experiencing times of loss, of self-doubt or insecurity, the overwhelming influx of beautiful people living beautiful lives only makes your situation feel even more isolated. Why don’t I look like that every day? Why am I not doing fun things all of the time? It must be something wrong with me.

College is a time when people are going through times of transformation and, therefore, are subject to insecurities. I remember sitting alone in my dorm room, studying, and scrolling through photo after photo of my friends hanging out together. It made me feel unimportant and small at a time in my life when I was already unsure of myself.

Let’s bring logic back into the equation for a moment and say that, of course, no one’s life is picture-perfect at every moment. We must remind ourselves that this is a controlled, edited version of people—a glimpse into what their true life contains. What’s more likely is they are also people facing life’s hardships while hiding behind perfect lighting, extravagant trips, and expensive outfits.

And I know what you’re going to say. We (the social media generation) bring it upon ourselves for continuing to subscribe to these apparitions of perfect lives by being involved in social media. And we do. We bring this additional element of hardship upon ourselves, usually at a time in our lives when we feel the most lost, the most doubt, and the most insecure. Because we crave to be connected.

But as we desperately seek to create real, meaningful connections, we can’t look to social media for the answer. To find that, we need to leave the window and step outside.

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